One of the more depressing political attacks in recent history was launched by the former Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, against President Obama. With strong implications of racism, Giuliani claimed that Obama did not love his country and might have « socialist » or « anti-colonial » leanings because of his mixed parentage and overseas birth. The main reason? Obama had suggested that we might be wrong in our blanket condemnation of the whole Muslim world as « terrorists. » Reminding us that Christians had also terrorized many Muslims during the Crusades, Obama took the position that guilt, like revenge, was a dish that was served best cold.
I happen to believe with Giuliani that, despite the mess we created in the Muslim world under President George W. Bush, terrorist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram have created a new level of brutal behavior in Arab countries that more centrist Islamists are not doing enough to confront and defeat. But disagreement, in an advanced democracy such as our own, is not the same as blanket dismissal. To charge Obama with a lack of patriotism simply because he doesn’t think the present condition of our country is perfect is to assume a posture that comes perilously close to totalitarianism.
This attitude of people like Giuliani and many of his fellow Republicans would not be so disturbing were it not the reigning posture of a growing number of other countries, not all of them Muslim, where any deviation from strict religious or political ideology is usually punished with excommunication, imprisonment, torture, death, or public condemnation. Even in open democracies such as Israel, many supporters of Netanyahu’s right-wing government have grown accustomed to charging critics of his regime, most of them Jewish, with anti-semitism or Jewish self-hatred. Violent reaction to criticism, we should remember, has been a central feature of North Korea, Russia, and some parts of China, among others. And now, under our Republican-dominated House and Senate, anything perceived as opening our land to immigrants or exiles, or improving the lot of the unemployed, has become grounds for shutting down the government, or impeaching and suing the president. This from the welfare cheats who spend most of their terms loafing in their home states, collecting paychecks.
Giuliani, and the political forces he represents, one suspects, are really the ones who don’t love their country, because they are circulating the undemocratic notion that to love America you must embrace all its faults. This was certainly not the position of the founding fathers, with their commitment to liberty and justice for all. It was not the position of Abraham Lincoln who sacrificed his popularity and his own life to put an end to our primal sin of slavery. It was not the position of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who pushed through countless laws protecting the rights of the persecuted and the homeless. It was not the position of Lyndon Johnson, who helped overcome the continuing exposure of the black man to persecution, inequality, and contempt. And it has certainly never been the position of Barack Obama, who has devoted his presidency to securing the economy, improving immigration laws, equalizing gender opportunity, and evolving a sensible and humane way to protect our interests overseas without excessive violence.
It is one of the great advantages of our democracy that it protects even the speech of bigots like Giuliani. Indeed, it protects any form of speech short of incitements to violence. It also protects the right of our much-maligned president to implement his policies. We’ll leave it to history — and our descendants — to decide which of these behavior patterns demonstrate more love of country.